Pastor, Church & Law

The Smith Case

§ 12.02.01

Key point 12-02.01. In the Smith case (1990) the Supreme Court ruled that a neutral law of general applicability is presumably valid and need not be supported by a compelling government interest to be consistent with the First Amendment, even if it interferes with the exercise of religion.

Oregon law prohibits the intentional possession of a “controlled substance,” including the drug peyote. Two employees of a private drug rehabilitation organization were fired from their jobs because they consumed peyote for “sacramental purposes” at a ceremony of the Native American Church. The two individuals applied for unemployment benefits under Oregon law, but their application was denied on the grounds that benefits are not payable to employees who are discharged for “misconduct.” The two former employees claimed that the denial of benefits violated their constitutional right to freely exercise their religion. The United States Supreme Court ruled that (1) the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom did not prohibit a state from criminalizing the sacramental use of a narcotic drug, and (2) the state of Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to individuals who were fired from their jobs for consuming peyote.45 110 S. Ct. 1595 (1990).

The Court began its opinion by noting that “we have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate.” On the contrary, the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom “does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law [prohibits] conduct that his religion prescribes.”

Key point. The Court did not throw out the “compelling state interest” requirement in all cases involving governmental restrictions on religious freedom. Rather, the Court stated that this requirement does not apply to restrictions caused by a “neutral law of general applicability.” A law or other government act that targets or singles out religious organizations must be supported by a compelling state interest. Further, as noted below, the compelling state interest requirement applies if a second constitutional right is burdened by a law or other government act.

The real significance of the Court’s ruling was its refusal to apply the “compelling state interest” test as requested by the discharged employees. As noted above, the Supreme Court previously had interpreted the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom to mean that the government could not impose substantial burdens on the exercise of sincerely-held religious beliefs unless its actions were justified by a “compelling state interest” that could not be served through less restrictive means. The former employees argued that the Oregon law’s denial of unemployment benefits to persons using peyote for sacramental purposes was not supported by a “compelling state interest” and accordingly could not be applied without violating the constitution.

The Court justified its refusal to apply the “compelling state interest” test by noting that

  • it had not applied the test in a number of its recent decisions
  • it had never found a state law limiting religious practices invalid on the ground that it was not supported by a compelling state interest
  • the compelling state interest test should never be applied “to require exemptions from a generally applicable criminal law”

The Court rejected the former employees’ suggestion that the “compelling state interest” test be applied only in cases involving religiously-motivated conduct that is “central” to an individual’s religion. This would require the courts to make judgments on the importance of religious practices—and this the civil courts may never do. The only options are to apply the “compelling state interest” test to all attempts by government to regulate religious practices, or to not apply the test at all. Applying the test in all cases involving governmental attempts to regulate religious practices would lead to “anarchy,” since it would render “presumptively invalid” every law that regulates conduct allegedly based on religious belief. This would open the floodgates of claims of religious exemption “from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind—ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races. The First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty does not require this.”

The Court’s ruling represents a clear departure from its previously well-established understanding of the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. No longer will a state need to demonstrate that a “compelling state interest” supports a law that prohibits or restricts religious practices. This is unfortunate, and will tend to make it more difficult to prove that a state’s interference with religious practices violates the guaranty of religious freedom. Four of the Court’s nine justices disagreed with the Court’s analysis and with the virtual elimination of the “compelling state interest” test. The minority asserted that the Court’s ruling diminished the guaranty of religious liberty by making it more difficult for persons to prove a violation of this fundamental constitutional guaranty. One of the dissenting Justices lamented that the Court’s decision tilts the scales “in the state’s favor,” and “effectuates a wholesale overturning of settled law concerning the religion clauses of our Constitution. One hopes that the Court is aware of the consequences. …”

The Smith case suggests that the Court is moving back towards the old “belief-conduct” analysis articulated more than a century ago in Reynolds—religious belief is protected by the free exercise clause, but not religiously-motivated conduct.46 Other decisions of the Court support this view. See, e.g., Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503 (1986) (Air Force regulation prohibiting religious headgear upheld despite claim of Jewish officer that it violated the free exercise of his religion); United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252 (1982) (Court rejected an Amish farmer’s request to be exempt from social security taxes); Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693 (1986) (government can deny welfare benefits to an individual who refuses to obtain a social security number, even though the individual’s actions are based on religious convictions).This shift has generated much criticism and opposition, which will ensure further reinterpretations of the free exercise clause.

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